WRA: Drax Panorama investigation shows ‘importance of using domestic waste wood’

The Wood Recycling Association (WRA) has today (4 October) responded to a BBC Panorama investigation into biomass fuel sourcing for renewable energy production at the Drax power station in Selby, Yorkshire. The body states that Panorama’s findings highlight the ‘importance of using domestic waste wood’.

Drax power station chimneys

BBC Panorama: The Green Energy Scandal Exposed

Aired last night (3 October) on BBC One, the investigation recounts the logging of natural forests for pellet production in Canada by Drax’s pellet production company Pinnacle, despite the company’s sustainability policy that it avoids damaging carbon-locking and primary forests and only uses wood unsuitable for wood products.

Stating that 20 per cent of its wood pellets supply hails from Canada, Drax specifies that 80 per cent of these imports come from leftover sawdust collected from Canadian sawmills, while the remaining 20 per cent from regulated forests, where leftover wood pieces from timber harvesting that cannot be used for lumber are processed into pellets.

However, following surveillance of Drax’s operations within British Columbia, presenter Joe Crowley revealed that high-grade logs were being harvested by Drax for pellet production, some of which would never have been deforested had the company not purchased the licence.

Further, the production shows records from the Canadian forestry database, revealing that the majority of logs processed at Drax’s local pellet plants were grade one, two, or four, meaning they were usable for carbon-capturing operations like paper or wood product production.

In response to the accusations made by Crowley, representatives from Drax claimed that much of the wood they collect from deforestation initiatives in the area would have posed a risk of wildfire, as much of it was dead, or that they collected tree species that the timber industry wouldn’t want, so would’ve been burnt anyway.

When approached with the claim that it was deforesting primary forest spaces, those which show no signs of human disturbance, Drax claimed its deforested sites were too close to roads in order to come under this umbrella, despite such proximity not being mentioned in the UN’s definition of ‘primary forest’.

The Drax power station

Opened in 1974, the Drax power station first housed electricity generation from coal, before co-firing biomass in 2010. Currently the UK’s largest producer of renewable energy, Drax supplies 12 per cent of the UK’s renewable energy, claiming its use of biomass pellets reduces its carbon emissions by 80 per cent compared to coal. Based on its title as a ‘green energy’ source, the plant has received £6 billion in subsidies from the Government as it aims to meet its net-zero goals.

However, there is reason to suggest that the burning of biomass for energy production produces the same amount of carbon, if not more, than burning coal. Drax alone gives off 13 million tonnes of CO2 each year, which isn’t counted towards the UK’s total carbon emissions, as pellet burning is classed as a renewable energy source by the UK Government.

Drax states that it is due to the renewable nature of wood that the carbon emitted by the incinerators doesn't go towards national carbon emissions totals – the company plants new trees alongside the wood it is collecting for pellets to capture its carbon production. However, new trees take decades to grow and capture carbon, while Drax is generating carbon now.

Indeed, the plant has received significant criticism from climate groups for its labelling of its energy production as ‘green’, and its inclusion in the UK’s progression towards net-zero. This is worsened by investigations into Drax’s sourcing, and its exploitation of primary forest environments and wood otherwise usable in more sustainable practices, like the production of wood products.

‘The importance of using our own end-of-life domestic waste wood’

Julia Turner, Executive Director at the WRA, said: “This emphasises the importance of using our own end-of-life domestic waste wood to fuel UK biomass energy generation and meet the need for renewable, baseload power.

“There are no material negative impacts of using domestic waste wood for energy recovery. UK plants are compliant with the Industrial Emissions Directive and by using waste as a fuel, UK plants are protecting natural resources and helping to prevent methane emissions from landfill.

“It is estimated that waste wood biomass created 2.27 million tonnes of greenhouse gas savings last year alone.

“Our recovery members also play a critical role in the UK’s bid to achieve independent energy security. The waste wood biomass sector has the capacity to generate 470MW of low carbon baseload power for the UK, equivalent to 3.3TWh per annum, supplying enough reliable power for 840,000 UK households and accounting for one per cent of annual UK power consumption.”

Drax wood waste sourcing

Of the seven million tonnes of wood pellets burnt each year at the Yorkshire power station, the majority is imported from North American or European countries. According to Friends of the Earth, 4.6 million tonnes of Drax’s wood pellets come from the USA, with 1.2 million tonnes coming from Canada, 0.8 million tonnes from the Baltic States, and the remaining mostly from other European countries.

The WRA joins politicians and other stakeholders, including Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng, in its view that Drax, as one of the biggest electricity producers in the country, should shift its reliance from pellet imports to the local industry. In a private meeting in August 2022, Kwarteng shared to MPs: “There’s no point getting it from Louisiana – that isn’t sustainable … transporting these wood pellets halfway across the world – that doesn’t make any sense to me at all,” referencing Drax’s Louisiana-based pellet facility.

Waste wood usage in the UK

This line of argument is furthered by the fact that, according to WRA data from 2021, 61 per cent of waste wood in the UK was recycled into wood pellets for biomass, with production set to increase.

Elsewhere, the association records that a wider 26 per cent of waste wood is used in the production of panel boards, with uses like in animal bedding production, equine surfaces and the reuse of waste wood, using up eight per cent, and the remaining being exported.

While the adoption of UK-produced biomass would considerably improve the facility’s sustainability profile, there are wider concerns that an increase in domestic biomass production will continue to produce large amounts of CO2 going unregistered by the Government’s measurements. Drax’s facility remains the largest producer of CO2 in the country, regardless of the source of its biomass. Other options for managing waste wood include its recovery through other means, including recycling into materials like panel boards, insulation, animal bedding, and MDF.

While most waste woods are suitable for recycling, their recovery usage differs regarding the quality grade of the material. Woods grade A-C are all reusable in new wood materials, varying depending on which grade the materials come under, while hazardous wood wastes are only suitable for disposal. It is these hazardous and unusable woods that Drax claims to limit itself to.